Washington State Fair: A Northwest tradition for more than a century

When the Washington State Fair began in 1900, did anyone ever imagine what it would grow to become? The iconic event’s 118-year history began as a simple idea from local merchants and farmers in Puyallup, housed behind a ten-foot fence, with a single section removed to serve as an entry gate.

Today, the Washington State Fair is the largest fair in the state and a family tradition filled with our favorite kinds of nostalgia: rides, slides, livestock, a rodeo, concerts and epic fair food, including those addicting scones.

It’s unlikely anyone could have predicted this over a century ago, especially the fair’s founders, who, as legend has it, didn’t sleep the night before at all, because they thought no one was going to show up.

They’re the same jitters today’s fair CEO Kent Hojem says is a familiar feeling, who’s been with the fair for 23 years.

“Every year on the first day of the fair, I have this sudden moment thinking, ‘oh my goodness, no one is going to show up,” Hojem told Q13’s Liz Dueweke. “We are going to throw open the gates, and nobody will come.”

Yet we always come. And we’ve been showing up for generations, every year, in bigger and bigger numbers.

In 1919, the fair was welcoming 75,000 people, and after World War II, those numbers were climbing to 100,000 in a single day!

But just like it’s thrilling rides, so is the history of the fair, with its own ups and downs.

In June 1970, a fire tore through the fairgrounds, a loss estimated at $1.2 million dollars. Despite that massive setback, the fair still opened on time that year. And a few years later, the community was no longer going to the “Western Washington Fair,” but instead, doing the Puyallup.

The iconic jingle that almost any lifelong Washingtonian can sing by heart, became a staple of our states pop culture lexicon. And during that time, fairgoers were “doing the Puyallup” record numbers. In fact, it became the sixth largest fair in the nation by the 90s.

Over 118 years, September still means one thing: fair time, even as the fair was officially rebranded in 2013, as the Washington State Fair.

“We stand on the shoulders of people who went before us,” Hojem said. “Those folks have created a tradition in the valley.” And as the fair evolves with the changing times, it’s also marked by its rich history and our fond memories of it.